Restoring the Christmas Spirit
Long, pale faces that once had rosy cheeks stood trapped on display since 1998. With prolonged light exposure and fluctuating temperatures inside the case, the fragile Nativity figures that were once carefully sculpted were literally falling apart.
An angel with a missing wing; Joseph with a broken arm; a townsperson limping on one leg — these defects were carefully concealed within the glass display case.
The Nativity, donated with some damage, needed more than tender love and care to be whole again. It needed attention, funding and expertise from the Marian Library, which has displayed its growing collection of more than 3,600 Nativities from 110 countries since 1995.
“Our collection shows that regardless of where we are from or where the artist is from, we are all God’s children, one race,” said Michele Devitt, curatorial assistant and volunteer coordinator at the Marian Library. “There are so many different varieties that exemplify diversity and inclusion. So, if you want to study history or culture, just looking at Nativities helps us understand the sociological impact cultures have on each other.”
The University’s in-house artisans, who are humbly called volunteers, take great care of the crèche collection and work every Tuesday to mend and preserve the stories of beauty, diversity, inclusion and prayer each one tells. But this one Nativity was broken beyond their repair.
The wax crèche crafted in Mexico in the 1950s by Angelita Gutierrez had not been moved much in 20 years, for fear of causing another broken arm or chipped toe.
“What is unique about this Nativity is reflected in the name, ‘A Fragile Beauty,’” said Kayla Harris, librarian and archivist at the Marian Library.
And then the Institution of Museum and Library Services helped deliver a Christmas miracle. The Marian Library applied for and received two federal grants administered by the State Library of Ohio, for a total of $10,000, to repair one of its few wax crèches. This was the first time the Marian Library sought a grant to repair a Nativity set.
The Marian Library asked conservator Betsy Allaire, who has previously worked on pieces in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, to restore the Gutierrez set that came to her in many more than its original 15 pieces.
Allaire said she proudly displays a personal collection of crèches in her home during the holidays. The ones she holds the dearest are those her children have handmade.
“One of the reasons I went into conservation is because I love to treat artifacts that have significance to people on a personal level,” Allaire said.
Allaire sent wax samples to the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields to better understand the materials, and she discovered secrets embedded by the artist by analyzing X-ray images taken at the Cincinnati Art Museum.
Gutierrez created her Nativity with composite objects. Hollow wax figures were draped with starched natural and synthetic textiles, supported with foam blocks, and embedded with metal armatures that secured them to wooden bases.
“When you’re looking at an object like this you have to think about each component separately and then how they all behave together,” Allaire said. “Each component is going to do its own thing and degrade the way metal or wood or wax degrades, but how it behaves when all together as one body needs to be understood before treatment.”
Much of the year-long conservation process involved research into the materials and history. Allaire spent the remaining months on repairs: sculpting a new angel wing, reattaching arms and fusing fractured ankles.
“A Fragile Beauty” came home to the Marian Library, in only 15 pieces, in October. It will be on display during Christmas 2019.
The scars of time are still revealed in faint mend lines and patchy skin tones, reminding us all during this holiday season that instead of striving for perfection, all we need is a gentle, loving touch to feel complete.
Nativity collections from all over the world can be viewed year-round in the Marian Library Crèche Museum located on the seventh floor of Roesch Library, and around campus during the Christmas season as part of the At The Manger exhibit. Visit go.udayton.edu/manger for more details.